SIERRA LEONE: 700 Youth Gather, Bring Awareness of Sexual Violence to Mark Day of the African Child
(MissionNewswire) Young girls and boys are at an alarming risk of sexual violence in Sierra Leone. Today, one third of girls are forced into marriage and often sexually assaulted by their husbands before their 15th birthdays. UNICEF estimates that close to 200,000 women, including young girls and older women, were sexually assaulted during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. The war has ended but the sexual violence continues.
In honor of Day of the African Child—celebrated by the Salesians on June 16 at Don Bosco Fambul in Sierra Leone—organized a youth festival with more than 700 in attendance, including youth and staff from the organization.
Each year, Day of the African Child focuses on a particular theme. This year was dedicated to “Eliminating harmful social and cultural practices affecting children: Our collective responsibility.” The theme is an important one given the rate at which young women are at risk for sexual violence, trafficking and forced pregnancy, among other atrocities. In addition, almost ninety percent of girls are subjected to female genital mutilation.
“Nothing is as powerful as a community itself seeing the harm being done to its own children and deciding collectively to end that practice,” says Nicholas Alipui, UNICEF’s director of programs, in a statement marking the Day of the African Child. “Communities are key to the health and well-being of African children subjected to harsh practices.”
In addition to advocating to protect and care for child victims, the Salesian event brought together hundreds of young people who denounced their abusers and the abuse they suffered. At a session of the Don Bosco Children’s Parliament and a subsequent press conference, a number of the girls reported sexual assaults committed by teachers, neighbors and even family members. Many of the cases remain un-investigated by the police.
But it’s not just young girls that are victims. Many boys are victims as well. Speaking at the event, one boy detailed his victimization at the hands of several police in Freetown-Kissy. He and his friends were robbed and assaulted. He was forced to stay in a police cell for three days before the social workers of Don Bosco Fambul were able to free him.
And although the incident was investigated by an internal disciplinary proceeding within the police department, the accused officers remain on duty.
“Policemen will always protect criminal policemen,” reflected one nine-year-old girl. She is one of several street children who spoke about their lives on the street, lives that are shaped by the violence and exploitation they experience every day.
Youth in Sierra Leone urged the government to take the appropriate measures to protect victims of violence and especially to prevent youth from ending up on the streets where they are at an even higher risk of violence and exploitation. They also focused attention on a failing educational and health care system that is often overrun with corrupt individuals victimizing youth. Advocates and youth also urged that the investigating authorities and the judiciary system ensure the establishment of an efficient penalty system against child abusers.
“It is not only on the 16th of June each year that children deserve the appreciation of parents, relatives, teachers, and even the President, it is every single day,” says Salesian Brother Lothar Wagner, social worker and director of the Girls Shelter at Don Bosco Fambul.
In addition to the youth festival, the Salesians at Don Bosco Fambul have been running a Girls Shelter for the past two years. The Shelter was created in direct response to this ongoing crisis. Here, professional social workers and pastoral workers provide crisis intervention and follow-up care for girls and young women who have been victims of sexual assault. According to a recently published Girls Shelter annual report, staff at the shelter provided crisis intervention services 521 times over the last two years.
The Girls Shelter is one of many programs provided for youth by Don Bosco Fambul. To learn more about Salesian programs in Sierra Leone visit SalesianMissions.org.
UNICEF – Sierra Leone
Salesian Missions – Sierra Leone